Screen-based devices (smartphones, tablets, computers) are now an ever-present part of our lives. Young people in particular use them for many daily activities, including school work, socialising, music, shopping…
Alongside this surge in screen use, mental health statistics suggest that increasing numbers of young people are suffering from mental ill health, particularly anxiety and depressive disorders (1). This recent survey estimated that, in England in 2017, 10% of girls and 6% of boys aged 5 to 19 years had an emotional disorder like anxiety or depression and that the reported rates of emotional disorders in 5 to 15-year olds had increased since 2004.
Are these two phenomena connected? Some researchers believe they are, but these claims are contested and good quality evidence is lacking.
In our research, published earlier this year (2), we used data from Children of the 90s, also known as the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children, to examine whether higher screen use at age 16 years was associated with anxiety and depression at 18. Children of the 90s is a research study which recruited around 15,000 pregnant women living in and around Bristol in the early 90s and has been collecting information about the children (born as a result of these pregnancies) and their families ever since. In our study we looked at the association between different types of screen use (television, computer use, and texting – note that the children in this study were aged 16 in 2008-2009, before the widespread use of smartphones and tablets) and later anxiety and depression. We were also able to take account of many other factors, such as time spent outdoors, time spent exercising, and so on, which are likely to be related to screen use and which could also affect the chance of someone developing anxiety or depression.
We found a relatively small association between computer use and both anxiety and depression but no association with texting or watching television. We also found that if we took account of the time a teenager spent on their own, the association between computer use and risk of later anxiety (but not depression) was weaker. We concluded that it is likely that the link between screen use and mental health is complex and dependent on other factors, such as the type of screen-based activity and the context in which screen-based devices are used.
It is important to note that our study cannot in any way tell us whether screen time causes anxiety or depression, only that they are linked in some way. Also, screen use has changed dramatically since 2006/2007 when these teenagers were 16 and more up-to-date data are needed to cast further light on this complex issue.
Rosie Cornish (Rosie.Cornish@bristol.ac.uk)
Mental Health of Children and Young People in England, 2017. NHS Digital 2018.
Khouja J et al. Is screen time associated with anxiety or depression in young people? Results from a UK birth cohort. BMC Public Health 2019; 19(1):82.